The Truth and the Word (Battletech Short Story)

    The day that I was made an Acolyte of The Word, three adepts led me and five others into a dark room and dressed us in red-hemmed robes. A photograph of Conrad Toyama was placed on a chair at the front of the room, and as the three adepts turned to face the photo, they clapped, and we clapped along with them.

    One by one, we were led up to the photo to make our vow. I was the second, and I watched the first acolyte nervously stammer through the words of his oath. I would not be so hesitant. All I had ever known was The Word. My entire life had led to this moment, this room, this oath. I remember looking into Conrad Toyama’s smiling eyes as I swore that I would always walk within the light of Blake, and that I would always live my life in service to The Word as we worked to bring peace to the Inner Sphere.

    I was sixteen when I took that oath. I was nothing more to The Word of Blake than a green, Grade I Acolyte chasing the coolant trucks across the tarmac and spraying the mud off the feet of the still-steaming 'Mechs with a pressure hose. I didn’t even have a name. I had a number, SBT11722. I was stationed at Statesboro Base, a minor support facility less than one hundred and fifty kilometers from Hilton Head, but I might as well have been on the other side of the Inner Sphere for all that we saw or knew of what was really going on under that island. I believed in The Word, not just the organization, not just ROM, but the Word itself. I didn’t need anything else. Anything else would just have been a distraction. I believed in our mission. I believed in peace, and I believed it when my superiors told me that we were meant to be the ones to bring that peace to the wartorn planets of the Inner Sphere. Our victory over the squabbling great houses that had been fighting each other for centuries was ordained. It was written in the stars themselves. We could not fail, for we had the spirit of Jerome Blake on our side. We were the embodiment of all that he stood for. We were the chosen ones who would finally put an end to the Succession Wars and usher in a new golden age where everyone would be free and prosperous. A future without war. That’s what we were promised. That’s what we were told we were working toward.

    Of course, we all knew there would be bloodshed along the way. Greedy leaders, war barons made fat by monstrous defense contracts– these were the enemies we were fighting to free the people from. No one rational or even reasonable would choose to reject The Word. Only those who profited from war could resist the peace that we sought to bring to all of the worlds of the Sphere.

    That was what we were told. Those were the words that were handed down to us when our supervisors led us in prayer. It was written in the reports we submitted, even the mundane ones. For the glory of The Word. For the glory of Blake. For the glory of all mankind. Always, we knew that with every action, we were doing the right thing. 

    Our daily briefings always promised us a future of peace. The vid-reels our superiors showed us in darkened mess halls– they were full of glossy, bright images of 'Mechs posed with crisp, crimson-banded paint jobs, cannons smoking or steaming in rain to make them look like the ‘Mech had just walked through a battle completely unscathed. The first time I ever saw a TYM-1C Toyama was during one of these briefings, and I remember marveling at the sleek upgrade of the original chassis, that shining, multi-function platform that embodied our crusade into the stars, the holy war that we were destined to win. Grand Titans, Lightrays, Blue Flames and White Flames– I saw them all on the vid-reel briefings. As I watched the recordings of these 'Mechs ripping apart hordes of patchwork tanks with their lasers and cannons, I remember feeling such a surge of pride. With such wonders of technology, with the blessings of Blake on our side, how could we not win? How could we not unite the Inner Sphere and put an end to war forever? Even the Clans could not stand against us, my superiors would say, painting for me a mental picture of a future where the whole of the Inner Sphere stood united, led by The Word, blessed by Blake, with the Clans kneeling obediently at our feet.

    What I didn’t know as a Grade I Acolyte was how poorly the war was really going for us. What I didn’t know was how much the Inner Sphere hated us. Jihad, they called our march across the stars, but it was a word I never heard at Statesboro Base. It was only much later that I learned that outside of the base, the news was full of reports of indiscriminate orbital nuclear bombardments perpetrated by zealots of the Word of Blake. If nukes were ever mentioned around me at Statesboro, it was only in the hushed tones of the fearful whispering between bunks in the barracks at night. We were more afraid of them being used on us. Never once did I believe we might already be using them on others.

    At some point, the daily briefings became shorter. The 'Mechs showcased on the vid-reels started to look less like parade pieces and more like workhorses pushed to their limits by worlds that resisted The Word against their own best interests. I knew enough from working on the tarmac to be able to recognize the telltale signs of field refits and patchwork repairs, even as carefully hidden as they often were. There were quirks you could see in the footage too, the shake of a hand actuator that spoke of a 'Mech rushed out to the field with autocannon shrapnel still embedded in the myomer bundles at the knuckles. The rust and scarring where coolant leaks had discolored the trim on a hastily replaced section of torso armor was another quirk I sometimes spotted, and everytime I saw something like that it made me wonder. It made me nervous. I rationalized it all away by telling myself that these were just 'Mechs from the front lines, 'Mechs piloted by the heroes bringing The Word to the bitterest and most wartorn worlds of the Sphere, but thinking about those sloppy field modifications still kept me up at night. Even back then, some part of me knew our campaign to pacify the Inner Sphere wasn’t going as smoothly as the Adepts above me were saying it was.

    The day the hopeful vid-reel briefings stopped was the day that Devlin Stone’s coalition brought the hammer down on Terra. Statesboro Base was insane with activity that day, and I put in three shifts back-to-back while we kept the 'Mechs and tanks rolling out to face the invaders. I didn’t know what was going on, I just knew it was bad. I knew enemy forces who rejected the peace of The Word had set down on our holy Terra, sewing chaos and destruction as they went. I gave every breath and every drop of sweat I could there on the tarmac that day in service to The Word. How could I not? How could I live with myself if I did anything less than my level best in the face of an invading force of barbarians who wanted nothing more than to sunder all of the peace we had tried to build?

    At some point, my supervisor stopped me and ordered me to take a break. The instant I sat down with a packet of food paste to eat, I fell asleep. Dawn woke me, cold and cloudy, and when I went out onto the tarmac to see what of our forces had come back for maintenance, I saw nothing. The field was abandoned. None of our 'Mechs, our tanks or our aerospace assets had come back. Nothing of what I knew was left.

    I think I wandered around Statesboro Base for an hour or so. I can’t say. I couldn’t find anyone, and the longer I walked, half-dead with hunger and fatigue, the more dreamlike the whole experience became. At some point, I wandered into the mess, picked up a handful of salted crackers and started to nibble at them while I watched murmurations of birds swirling over the swamps and the deserted stretches of rain wet tarmac. In the distance, in the direction of Hilton Head, I swore I could hear the quiet thumping of ordinance, artillery or missiles maybe. At this range, I couldn’t tell. The enemy could be close, surely was just over the horizon, but I was too tired to be terrified.

    I wandered through the offices and control rooms, finding nothing, no one. When I finally stumbled across my supervisor, he was frantic, shoving C-bills into a bag and muttering to himself. Desperate, I tried to quote Blake’s own words at him, tried to put my hand on him and reassure him with the blessings of The Word, but nothing seemed to calm him any more. The look my supervisor gave me as he pressed the grip of a Sunbeam laser pistol into my hands was panicked and feral. I don’t even remember his parting words, I was so shaken by his expression. Forsaken, that’s what I think he said. We have been forsaken.

    I spent the rest of the day waiting, eating crackers and wondering if new orders would come down, or if missiles would rain upon the base first. I watched as my supervisor commandeered a jeep and cut out through the swamplands, his bags packed to the brim with stolen C-bills. Dusk came, and with it, a few others stumbled in from the hangars to sit with me, to watch the sun sink into the trees while we waited for death, for victory, for whatever Blake had ordained should happen now, in this final, desperate hour.

    I didn’t fight when Stone’s coalition forces took the base. I had abandoned the Sunbeam on a crate and I had run out of crackers, sharing them with the others who sat with me. We raised our hands in surrender when the lance of Manticore tanks flying Lyran colors parked on the tarmac, and the infantry supporting them swarmed us. There were maybe forty of us acolytes left to round up on the whole of Statesboro Base, all of us teenagers, all of us green, all of us first level technicians, abandoned by our commanding officers. There was no fight left in any of us. There was no reason to resist. In a matter of days, everything we knew had crumbled to nothing. Many of us felt like my superior had. Forsaken. It was a word I heard a lot in those days.

    In retrospect, Stone’s forces treated us more kindly than we probably deserved. I only found out about the re-education camps when we were herded into one, replacing the soldiers and Mechwarriors that had been kept there until The Word of Blake fell. A token cadre of Stone’s soldiers watched over us in the massive camp that previously had held thousands of our own prisoners, and in the days that followed, I learned so many horrible things about the organization that I had supported unquestioningly. I learned how the outsiders saw us, and I learned that it was not because of barbaric brainwashing as we had been told. No, their hate was deserved.

    I learned about the horrors of the camps. I learned about the fanatical soldiers augmented with terrifying cybernetics who carried Blake’s blessings on their lips as they tore their way through 'Mechs and men with equal ease. Perhaps worst of all, I learned about the nukes. I learned about the devastation The Word had wreaked on Tharkhad and New Avalon. In the daily briefings that Stone’s soldiers made mandatory in the days that followed, I saw the footage of the burned-out city centers, the cruelty of the Blakist ‘Mechs that haunted the ruins, exterminating survivors indiscriminately. Every ‘Mech that bore the colors I recognized as belonging to The Word was portrayed in a light I’d never seen before. Horrific tools of a holy war that left a trail of blood and ash in its wake.

    For days afterward, I was consumed with guilt. For days, weeks, I tossed and turned in my regulation cot and stumbled through the duties the Coalition gave us while they kept us contained in the slowly shrinking re-education camp. My dreams were full of fire, full of screams, and I knew that even the small part I had played in all of it had fueled something evil, something twisted, something that Jerome Blake himself would have condemned were he still living and walking among us.

    After a few months, after the fall of The Word and the collapse of Hilton Head under a hailstorm of nuclear fire, we were moved to another base in the midwest. Room was made for us in our own barracks unit, and we were told to wait. I spent most of the week that followed staring out of my room’s only window, watching the birds circle and turn beneath the heavy clouds, wondering where people like my supervisor went, wondering if he escaped offworld, wondering if some remnant of The Word was perhaps still alive out there, still fighting, still as ignorant as I had been of the evil we had perpetuated in the name of Blake.

    When the soldiers came for me, they came for all of us. I remember standing outside my room, facing the wall with my hands behind my head while all of us waited for the instruction to move. I was herded into a dark room with a dozen others and again told to wait. The soldiers who had led us to the room left, and when they returned, there was a woman with them holding the photograph of Conrad Toyama that I had sworn my oath to. Dark feelings roiled up within me as I looked at that photograph, feelings of rage for what we had been a part of, feelings of despair for the promised future of peace that we’d lost, that had been taken from us. I hated the smile on Toyama’s face now. Seeing it didn’t raise my spirits like it used to. It didn’t strengthen my resolve. Instead, it almost looked like he was mocking us. His smile was a death’s rictus, the toothy, skeletal leer of the death of The Word and all that we had stood for, all we had been trying to achieve. When the woman put the photo on the floor and instructed us to spit on it, to stomp on it and curse at it, I was more than happy to do so. It was shocking, afterward, realizing how much I had changed, how much the truth had changed me.

The whole thing was a test of loyalty, I realized later. Only one of us refused to sully the photo of Toyama, and she was promptly led out behind the building and shot for it. The rest of us were led to another room, a dark room where a photo of Devlin Stone had been placed upon a chair. All of the officers of the Coalition that were in the room with us turned to face the picture and clapped. I knew the routine. I knew what would keep me alive. I looked at the photo of Stone and I clapped along with them.

    One by one, we all took an oath of allegiance before the photo of Devlin Stone. As we had done with the photo of Conrad Toyama before, we looked into Stone’s piercing eyes and swore that we would always serve the orders of Exarch Stone, that we would always live our lives in service to The Republic as we worked to bring peace to the Inner Sphere. When our oaths were sworn, three men in ceremonial uniforms gave us citizenship papers, gave us names, coveralls, and a little book to read that looked similar to the book of Jerome Blake’s writings I still kept with my things. 

    I kept my head down after that. I said my prayers in private and I did what I could to blend in. There were ‘Mechs to be maintained. There were coolant trucks to chase across the tarmac. There was a cause to be served.

    But I didn’t feel like I was part of something greater anymore. I didn’t feel like I was participating in something grand that would bring humanity into some golden age that lay waiting just over the cosmic horizon. My supervisors told us that we were working toward peace, but all I could see were the BattleMechs we maintained, the war machines built to deal death and nothing more. We were in the service of a different master claiming that this new cause was the right one, the just one, the one that would finally bring lasting peace to the Inner Sphere. After everything that had happened, after everything I’d seen, everything I’d lived through, I found the words impossible to believe.

    To their credit, the Republic never tried to hide the truth from us the way that The Word had. Having the horrors of war put on display at our morning briefings was new, but it did nothing to assuage the guilt I felt for playing any part, however small, in this fresh crusade that was killing others in the pursuit of peace. Seeing the ‘Mechs we maintained carve their way through the Chaos March in the name of a man I had only ever seen in photographs did nothing for my belief in the cause. Stone was exactly that. He was a man, a man whose words were chosen for him, a man whose words were interpreted by my supervisors and handed down to me as edicts. I never said it outloud, but even still, sometimes, I find myself wondering if Stone really was any better of a man than Conrad Toyama, or if he was just a different dictator wearing a different color of uniform and carrying a different title. Maybe they’re all like that, the House Lords, the leaders of each planet and each band of mercenaries plying their trade of violence across the span of stars. Maybe they’re all just men you only ever see in photographs. Maybe their nations are no less destructive than The Word was, even at our worst. Maybe their war crimes are no less horrific than those perpetuated in the name of Conrad Toyama and Jerome Blake. 

    Maybe each day we fall further from the hope of attaining a lasting age of peace than we have ever fallen before.

Authors Note: I recently wrote a short story set in the Battletech universe and submitted it to Shrapnel Magazine for publication. One of the fiction editors at the magazine said "you have certainly demonstrated your talents" and "There's a lot that we like about your writing" but they rejected the story anyway. Since I don't plan on repurposing the story for another venue, I've posted it here on my blog in the hopes that fans of the franchise will still be able to enjoy it. I'll let you decide whether it's a good read or not.


  1. That was a really good read. Shame they rejected the story.

  2. Oh other comment got eaten. That was a really good read.


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